Fresh out of law school in the early 1980s, Darcy McGraw got a job as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office under the near-legendary Robert M. Morgenthau. She was a member of the sex crimes unit, as well as doing some appellate work and organized crime investigation.

It was the first of a long line of jobs that have led McGraw to her latest position — head of the Connecticut Innocence Project.

"It’s a pretty coveted position," said McGraw, who has experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney and lawyer who has handled post-conviction appeals and habeas cases. "I became very interested in post-conviction release. I became interested in the fact that the system has serious blind spots and problem areas that we need to address."

McGraw has some big shoes to fill at the Connecticut Innocence Project (CTIP), which is part of the state Division of Public Defender Services and housed at the Hartford offices of McCarter & English. The CTIP’s first and only director to date, Karen Goodrow, was recently confirmed as a Superior Court judge. Under Goodrow, the project made headlines by winning the exoneration of James Tillman, who had been imprisoned on a rape conviction for 18 years, and then two men, Kenneth Ireland and Miguel Roman, who had been wrongly convicted of murder.

"Karen Goodrow was my mentor in this area, and I have tremendous respect for the work that she’s done and for her methodologies," said McGraw, who had previously worked for the CTIP. "[She] was a very experienced criminal defense attorney—she had done numerous capital cases and habeas corpus cases even before she got here.

"Working with her was a great privilege; I got to learn how this area of the law is evolving because it is fairly new. Obviously, I would like to continue in her footsteps, but I am not Karen and I have my own style."

After five years as a New York prosecutor, she moved to Connecticut so her husband, Bruce Altman, could attend Yale’s School of Drama. Altman has gone on to become a professional actor, whose credits include parts in the film "Running Scared" and in the HBO series "The Sopranos."

In Connecticut, McGraw worked at Wiggin and Dana and practiced civil and commercial law at Brenner, Saltzman & Wallman in New Haven. Attorney Kenneth Rosenthal, a trial lawyer at Brenner Saltzman, called McGraw "the perfect person for the [Innocence Project] job and it is the perfect job for her."

"She has some visions that are going to make some positive difference in our justice system," said Rosenthal.

McGraw spent part of her career away from the legal arena, serving as executive director of the Connecticut Department of Utilities Control and president of the Jewish Family Services in New Haven for a number of years. "So, I’ve had experience managing a fairly large staff of people," she said with a modest laugh.

But McGraw never lost her desire to return to criminal law. While raising her daughter, Anna, she got a part-time position as an appellate attorney with the public defender’s office. In 2009, she joined the staff of the Innocence Project, also as a part-timer.

Seeking full-time employment, McGraw moved to her most recent position in the Habeas Corpus Unit of the public defender’s office.

The CTIP’s efforts were greatly aided by a $1.5 million Bloodsworth Grant awarded by the federal government in 2009; the grant is named after a Maryland man who served eight year in prison for murder after being misidentified by five eyewitnesses. The CTIP is already in the process of applying for a new grant that would pick up where the Bloodsworth Grant leaves off.

According to the Innocence Project website, the staff is currently reviewing about 100 cases. The real challenge, McGraw said, is knowing how to identify which ones to pursue. She noted that it’s a complicated process of working with old evidence and getting the legal system to review old convictions.

The CTIP works closely with the Chief State’s Attorney Office, Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory, and state and local police. McGraw said while Goodrow received cooperation from the state in all of the exonerations so far. She remains optimistic that will be the case going forward. "There is good faith on both sides much of the time," she said.

In an interview last week, McGraw spoke of Louis Taylor, who was released this month from an Arizona prison after serving 40 years for a crime he did not commit.

"We now know that over 300 people in the United States have been wrongfully convicted, where we can absolutely prove the person is innocent," she said. "And in some of those cases, the person has already been executed.

"My sense from doing the work I’ve done is that all parts of the justice system agree that there is a flaw. The court agrees, the state’s attorneys agree, and so on. Where we differ is how we interpret the evidence…we may not agree that this evidence concludes that the person is innocent." •